Enigmatic Eurasian collective Slavs and Tatars returns to Dubai with acclaimed exhibition Made in Germany

A giant set of prayer beads hangs from the ceiling of Dubai’s Third Line Gallery. Unexpectedly, it makes for a very agreeable swing. But does it sit with you as comfortably? “A lot of our work, like in Sharjah or MoMA, has an element of participation,” say Slavs and Tatars, the collective of artists behind the work. “People don’t know what they’re supposed to do with it. They’re afraid to touch. Are we actually religious or are we poking fun at religion? It’s literally sweeping through the two extremes — religiosity and humour. It’s very hard to have those two things in the same basket.”

PraySway (brown), 2015, forms part of Slavs and Tatars’ Made in Germany show. Producing books, lectures and exhibitions, this ever-changing group has spent ten years flipping history through translation, poking around for stories and quirks that deserve to be “excavated.” Their chosen territory stretches between the Berlin Wall and the Great Wall of China.

“We started out about a decade ago as an art collective, and the idea was to focus on an area of the world that falls through the cracks,” they explain. “It’s largely Muslim but it’s not the Middle East. It’s largely Russian-speaking but it’s not Russia. It’s largely Asian but it’s never really been under Chinese rule.”

Made in Germany ran at The Third Line until October 22, a larger version having been nominated for the German Preis der Nationalgalerie, similar to the Turner Prize. In this show, Slavs and Tatars explore German Orientalism and Kaiser Wilhelm II’s allegiance to the Ottoman Sultan in 1898, in search of what history has to say about Europe’s contemporary relationship to Islam. The subsequent jihad declared on Germany’s enemies in France, England and Russia is illustrated in the artists’ reprinting of the propaganda newspaper El-Dschihad on thin metal sheets. By supplanting “j” with the awkward “dsch,” the Germans emphasised the foreign. The collective has “reversed” the jihad by printing it on bendy mirror, and subverted the art object further by laying it on the floor, against the wall. Their signature Kitab Kebab (En Islam Iranien), 2013, is five books skewered. “There’s three types of knowledge,” the artists say. “German is vertical — the physicist who knows everything about one thing. American is horizontal — a little bit about everything. The challenge is how do we combine the range with the depth? The diagonal brings those two together.”